For Woods, a come­back for the ages

At 43, five-time Masters cham­pion gives golf an­other in­deli­ble mo­ment — and starts a new chap­ter

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY BARRY SVR­LUGA

When Tiger Woods won his first Masters more than half his life ago, he fell into the em­brace of his fa­ther, Earl, be­cause he was barely a grown man him­self. When he strode off the 18th green Sun­day af­ter­noon at Au­gusta Na­tional Golf Club — his hair long since thinned, his life long since changed — he walked di­rectly to his 10-yearold son, Char­lie, and scooped him up. He could not hear what Char­lie or his older sis­ter, Sam, said, what with the din that rang through the pines.

“Prior to this come­back,” Woods said, “they only knew that golf caused me a lot of pain.”

Woods com­pleted his come­back from tra­vails both per­sonal and phys­i­cal Sun­day, win­ning his fifth Masters ti­tle an as­ton­ish­ing 14 years af­ter last. He is 43 and has been bro­ken in so many ways. But this hug of Char­lie, the en­su­ing em­brace of his mother, Kul­tida, and then of Sam, it was both un­prece­dented and pure. When Woods won his 14 pre­vi­ous ma­jor cham­pi­onships — chang­ing golf as he did so — his son wasn’t yet around and his daugh­ter was less than a year old for the last. When he broke through for a his­toric 15th, they joined him, giddy, on a Sun­day that re­shaped golf again.

“I hope that’s some­thing they will never for­get,” Woods said.

That’s what his vic­to­ries cre­ate, un­for­get­table mo­ments, and this was a new chap­ter in so many ways. Woods’s tri­umph, seen over the course of four com­pet­i­tive days here, is sim­ple. He shot a round of 70 on Sun­day that left him at 13 un­der par for the tour­na­ment, a stroke ahead of three younger Amer­i­cans — Dustin John­son, Xan­der Schauf­fele and Brooks Koepka — each in his prime.

But noth­ing Woods has ever done — not 22 years ago, when he broke through with a

land­mark vic­tory right here, and not now — is con­tained by the pa­ram­e­ters of a sin­gle event. When Woods won that first Masters back in 1997, there were so­ci­etal over­tones be­cause Au­gusta Na­tional Golf Club once kept out play­ers who looked like he does. By Sun­day af­ter­noon, the over­tones weren’t as so­ci­etal. They were more per­sonal. “Just un­real,” he said. Un­real not be­cause of how he played, which was splen­didly, but be­cause of the road — once paved smoothly, now marked with pot­holes — he took there. Since his most re­cent ma­jor cham­pi­onship, Woods put him­self through a tawdry, pub­lic in­fi­delity scan­dal that led to his di­vorce. His body broke down to the point that he won­dered whether he would ever play again. He missed nearly two full years and with­drew from tour­na­ments as fre­quently as he com­pleted them.

But one thing re­mained through it all: He is a sin­gu­lar fig­ure in his sport, the player who mat­ters more than any­one else.

“He’s the rea­son I play golf,” said Justin Thomas, at 25 al­ready a ma­jor cham­pion and one of the game’s ris­ing stars.

It’s not an un­com­mon sen­ti­ment among Woods’s com­peti­tors now. As the scan­dal moved a decade into Woods’s past, even the game’s most revered fig­ures — in­clud­ing Jack Nick­laus, the only player with more ma­jor cham­pi­onships than Woods — yearned for him to re­turn to the pedestal he once seemed des­tined to oc­cupy alone.

“Every­body wants to see Tiger Woods win more ma­jors be­cause he moves the nee­dle like no­body play­ing golf to­day,” Nick­laus said just as the tour­na­ment was be­gin­ning. He pointed to Woods’s vic­tory at Septem­ber’s Tour Cham­pi­onship, Woods’s first win of any kind in five years. As he strode up the fi­nal fair­way that day, the gallery filled in be­hind him, a near mob scene for one rea­son: Tiger was back.

“I don’t think I ever saw ex­cite­ment like that, even when Arnold [Palmer] was at his best,” Nick­laus said. “Be­cause they knew what he had gone through and how he had strug­gled, and every­body likes to see a man make a great come­back.”

The come­back was phys­i­cal, to be sure. But it had to be men­tal and emo­tional as well. His bro­ken body is what he has ad­dressed most freely, and it may have caused him the most is­sues. Be­fore Sun­day, his most re­cent ma­jor cham­pi­onship came at the 2008 U.S. Open, where he fa­mously needed 19 ex­tra holes to beat a jour­ney­man pro named Rocco Me­di­ate — on a bro­ken leg and a shred­ded knee. He fol­lowed that with four back surg­eries. In 2016 and 2017, he didn’t play in a sin­gle ma­jor. The ques­tion changed from “Could he win?” to “Could he even play?”

“I had se­ri­ous doubts,” Woods said. “I could barely walk. I couldn’t sit, couldn’t lay down. I re­ally couldn’t do much of any­thing.”

The fi­nal surgery, in the spring of 2017, al­le­vi­ated Woods’s de­bil­i­tat­ing back pain. Slowly, he built him­self back into com­pet­i­tive form. He reg­u­larly prac­tices and plays with the cadre of PGA Tour pros who live near him in Jupiter, Fla. Those who saw him in shorts on the range back home had an inkling. In the fall of 2017, Rickie Fowler, a 30-year-old who as­pires to win ma­jors as Woods once did, saw glim­mers in Woods’s game.

“You have to go out there and ac­tu­ally do it,” Fowler said. “But I saw the pos­si­bil­ity there with what he was do­ing at home, how he was feel­ing, how he was swing­ing.”

Now he has ac­tu­ally done it, and so the con­jec­ture about whether he could evap­o­rates. It’s re­placed im­me­di­ately, how­ever, with the next ques­tion. There were points in Woods’s ca­reer when eclips­ing Nick­laus’s record of 18 ma­jor cham­pi­onships seemed in­evitable. There were more re­cent points when it seemed im­pos­si­ble. Now he is com­ing off a Masters that he won not by ran­dom fluke or an op­po­nent’s fail­ure. He won be­cause he was, like old times, the best player in the field, one with a game that’s still pow­er­ful and a mind that is with­out peer.

So the old ques­tion gets new life: Is catch­ing Jack back to be­ing pos­si­ble?

“Eigh­teen is, I think, a lot closer than peo­ple think,” said Koepka, who has won three ma­jors in the past two years and fig­ures to be one of Woods’s chief ad­ver­saries go­ing for­ward. “I would say that’s prob­a­bly what all fans, what we’re think­ing — that he’s def­i­nitely back and 18’s not that far.”

Fif­teen, though, had to come first. The tour­na­ment turned, as so many Masters have, at Au­gusta Na­tional’s 12th hole — the short­est the course has to of­fer but with a di­a­bol­i­cal his­tory. When Woods ar­rived at the 12th tee, he trailed Italy’s Francesco Moli­nari by two shots.

Moli­nari’s tee shot landed on the em­bank­ment, bounced twice and set­tled back into Rae’s Creek, dead. Woods found the cen­ter of the green. When he walked to the 13th tee, he was tied for the lead.

“There were so many dif­fer­ent sce­nar­ios that could have hap­pened af­ter 12,” Woods said.

The crowd wanted only one: Woods’s fifth green jacket. The fi­nal turn came at the par-5 15th, where Moli­nari again found the wa­ter and Woods made a birdie to get to 13 un­der. He led alone. When he stuffed his tee shot at the par-3 16th to within a foot of the hole, the spec­ta­tors gath­ered by the mas­sive, hand-op­er­ated score­board at the 17th green heard the roar — then waited, their backs turned to the hole, wait­ing for Woods’s birdie to be posted.

“Do it! Do it!” they yelled.

“Come on.”

When the op­er­a­tor posted a red “14,” in­di­cat­ing Woods’s birdie and a two-shot lead with two holes to play, those in the gallery ex­ploded as if they had seen the shot them­selves. Wher­ever you were on the course, you knew what had hap­pened.

“I never heard a Tiger roar that’s not loud,” Koepka said.

The last roar came at 18, when he tapped in for a fi­nal bo­gey, all he needed to win. When th­ese re­sults were more reg­u­lar, when they seemed more nor­mal, Woods might pump his fist and smile, thrilled but re­served. Here, he let loose. He raised both hands sky­ward. He hugged his cad­die, then all but flexed to the crowd. Eleven years be­tween ma­jors, 14 years since your last Masters, it will lead to some pent-up emo­tion.

“God knows what I did af­ter that,” Woods said.

What he did was hug his son, then his mom, then his daugh­ter. It was a mea­sure of the mo­ment that as Woods made his way through the throngs from the 18th green — be­hind the first tee and all the way to the nook of the club­house where play­ers re­view their score­card — all man­ner of com­peti­tors waited to greet him. There was not only Thomas and Fowler, straight from the gen­er­a­tion Woods bred, but for­mer Masters cham­pi­ons Bern­hard Langer, Mike Weir, Zach John­son and Bubba Wat­son, all wear­ing their green jack­ets.

Wat­son was among those to em­brace Woods.

“He just said, ‘I’m not cry­ing yet,’ ” Wat­son said. “I said, ‘You will be.’ ”

Any tears, this time, would be not just be­cause of who wasn’t there but who was. Tiger Woods, flawed fa­ther of two, is a Masters cham­pion again. Dif­fer­ent than the man — the kid — who won the first time. But, now we know, maybe ca­pa­ble of do­ing it again.

“He’s the rea­son I play golf.”

Justin Thomas, him­self a ma­jor cham­pion at age 25, de­scrib­ing the in­flu­ence of Tiger Woods, who edged three younger Amer­i­can play­ers to win the Masters for the fifth time.

KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IM­AGES

Tiger Woods won the Masters for the first time in 14 years Sun­day. It was his 15th ma­jor golf ti­tle, sec­ond all-time, and first since 2008.

AN­DREW RED­ING­TON/GETTY IM­AGES

Tiger Woods cel­e­brates with his son, Char­lie, who was not even born the last time he won a ma­jor golf ti­tle, the 2008 U.S. Open. “I hope that’s some­thing they will never for­get,” Woods said of his two kids.

JEFF HAYNES/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES

Woods re­ceived his first green jacket, pre­sented an­nu­ally to the Masters cham­pion, in 1997 from pre­vi­ous cham­pion Nick Faldo.

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